before and after by 65

Before & After: Cleaning Vintage Metal Hardware


Living in an old apartment building and populating my life mostly with vintage stuff that’s seen better days, it’s easy to become a bitter person. Resentful, even. Living this way means that I am in the constant company of ghosts of bad decisions past — of tenants and owners and of several landlords whose interests might have rested more on their bottom lines than on the preservation of their buildings.

Why did somebody choose to line the drawers of this old dresser with such ugly wallpaper? Who made the decision to paint over the entire window in my bathroom — glass and all? Why did the people who lived here before me own loads of cats but, evidently, not a single vacuum cleaner? We may never know. I know their lives are none of my business, but by leaving behind these relics for me to contend with, they have made it my business. And so, instead of demanding answers that I will never find, I privately curse these individuals and go about correcting their mistakes for them.

One of the most common victims of sloppy tenants and sloppier landlords is old metal hardware. Because it would take an extra five seconds or so to unscrew a doorknob or even just tape around it, that step generally gets passed over in favor of just painting the whole door — including knobs, hinges and existing hooks. The same rule generally applies to window sash locks and — well, let’s be honest — anything in sight.

The good news is that stripping and cleaning old metal hardware is really easy and more or less free! It’s a small project, but these details go a long way toward making your whole space feel clean, polished and fresh. All you need are a few basic supplies (that you might already have), and you’ll be on your way to beautiful hardware that nobody will ever know endured such a traumatic past. — Daniel

More on cleaning vintage metal hardware after the jump . . .


For a doorknob, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove the knob. There should be a small screw at the base of the knob holding it to a central rod that runs through the mortise mechanism inside the door. After the screw is removed, it should be easy to slide off the knob.


Then expose the screws on the backplate. Usually, even with many layers of paint, it’s easy to discern where the screws should be, so I find it’s best to scrape away the paint with an X-Acto knife to expose the head. Then use a manual screwdriver (screws on old hardware usually require a small flathead) to remove the screws. Though it might seem like an electric screwdriver would be faster, electric screwdrivers have a tendency to strip old, stuck screws. Apply pressure, take your time and the screw should come loose easily enough.


After you’ve removed all the screws, pry off the backplates. If you don’t want to re-paint the door when you’re done, use your X-Acto knife to cut into the paint around the backplate so that the plate doesn’t take big chunks of paint with it.

For extra points, remove the mortise inside the door, too. This one was removed at some point and replaced upside down (and, consequently, the backplates were then reinstalled upside down!), so it was extra-important to remove this one and replace it correctly.

When you’re done, sweep up any loose paint on the floor. Older layers of paint may be lead-based, so it’s not a good idea to leave pieces lying around where pets or children might decide to munch on them.


There are many stripping products on the market (such as corrosive paint strippers and heat guns), but all you really need for a project like this is a decent sized old pot. It’s probably not a great idea to prepare food in this pot when you’re done, so I picked this one up at a thrift store for $5. If you think older layers of paint might be lead-based, this project is safer with a lidded crockpot on the middle setting overnight. You can often find old crockpots at thrift stores that work great for projects like this!

Fill the pot with water and a few tablespoons of dish soap (no need to be exact!), and throw your painty hardware and screws in! Cover the pot and keep it on low heat, enough for the water to heat up but not enough to boil. Then just leave it there for several hours. You should be able to see the paint begin to bubble and separate from the hardware within a few hours, but it’s good to let it all marinate for about 6-8. Keep an eye on it while you occupy your time with something more exciting, like staring in the mirror and whispering self-affirming statements to your reflection.


When the hardware has been heated for a while, remove it with tongs directly into a bowl of ice water. I’ve skipped this step in the past, but it does seem to make the paint extra-easy to remove, as well as making the hardware easy to handle immediately.

Then just move over to the sink and start removing your paint! Most of it should come off easily with your fingers and the rough side of a sponge, although paint might still cling to small crevices (like screw holes). I like to keep my X-Acto blade (or a flathead screwdriver, or something rigid and pointy) handy to carefully peel off these difficult parts. Be careful, here — you don’t want to scratch the finish! Or cut off a finger.


After you’ve sponged everything down and removed all the paint, dry it off with a towel, and you could be done! If your hardware is on the newer side, it may be nice to give it a final scrub with a product such as Bar Keeper’s Friend. This stuff is mega-powerful, though, so it’s a good idea to start with the back of a backplate or another area that won’t be exposed, just to make sure you actually like the restored finish. For this knob set, I decided to leave the patina as is instead of trying to restore it to like-new condition.

To protect the finish from tarnishing further — or rusting if it’s going in a bathroom — you may want to hit it with a coat of clear matte varnish. And if it turns out that you totally hate the plain metal, or it just doesn’t look right with your house, you can always repaint it with a nice even coat of spray paint. Black hardware on a white door looks amazing.


Then all that’s left is to reattach it to the door, and you’re done! Now you’ll feel fancy and accomplished, and you can stop hating whatever monster(s) caused this mess in the first place!

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home at Manhattan Nest.

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65 Comments

Chrissy

Oh my gosh!

I think the same things to myself ALL THE TIME about the building I live in.
(especially about the windows!)

But, a little character is better than none at all I suppose ;)

rebecca

thanks for this post. i need to do this for all the hardware in my house (doors and windows). my boyfriend did this at his house a few years ago and the results are amazing. it would be really expensive to buy new hardware of the same quality as the original.

sara

OH boy! Daniel has almost convinced me that this tedious task would be easy … and I should just get on it in my own home!

Steven Hoober

What’s depressing about renting is that the landlord never learns. We were there when the new tenant was sold on our apartment (this is 10+ years ago) and they loved the painting, etc. we did. Which was even in very good shape still.

So naturally the landlord painted everything in free-paint-beige, and right over the stripped cabinet hinges, etc. Depressing.

mary @ B&Gjournals

can totally relate here.we are renting a lovely old boston apartment right now, and our landlord most definitely has the “paint over everything” syndrome—nails in the wall, door and window hardware, hooks on doors, old peeling wallpaper—its all simply been painted over with what looks like 15 layers of paint now. oh if these walls could talk… :)

Kris

This works SO WELL. You can also find old painted hardware cheap to replace all those missing pieces around the house. Have found some really unique items online and am always amazed by what I find after peeling off the layers of paint after a night in the crockpot!

Anna @ D16

Gotta say, stripping paint off of old hardware is one of the most satisfying parts of home renovation. I love doing it. I’m actually kind of sad that there’s nothing in my house left to strip! Maybe I should paint over it myself just so I can remove it again, hahaha.

Vanessa

I do this same thing – boiling the painted peices – but don’t ever let it sit for hours. Just bring it to a boil, throw in some baking soda and then see how many layers are left. Sometimes I have to do it twice to get all the paint off. I use a tooth brush (my husband’s of course) because metal on metal will leave scratches. Finish up with Brasso.

Beverly

In photo one, the orientation of the knob and keyhole have been reversed for remounting. Any advantage to that?

Maxwell Tielman

Beverly— in addition to being painted over, the knob in the before picture had been installed upside down if you can believe it! The after picture shows the correct orientation.

heather

I think it’s funny that the orientation of the knob and keyhole changed, that made me giggle. I am guessing that it might have been a funny transition for the person trying to use the key the first few times. :)

leslie

I wish I would have known this when we moved into our new flat this summer. Its a beautiful place with wonderful built-ins and hardwood floors, unfortunately all of the old hardware had layers and layers of paint on them from previous tenants and lazy landlords. We completely painted the entire place from ceiling to floor and cleaned up the hardware. The place looks great but the harsh stripping cleaners that you buy at the hardware store lead me to believe I would never do that again. This is a great post! Thanks

Katie

This is perfect – thank you! My landlord has definitely got the white paint syndrome. Everything is painted over white, even the (presumably pink or mint green) bathroom tiles. I can’t even use the locks on my windows, it’s so thick.

Vanessa

Depending on which state you live in, it’s illegal to paint windows shut. I’m a landlord and just went through some training for the State of Oregon. That issue came up during the training. You might want to check on it.

Tamara

Haha, just by the style of writing I knew this must be written by Daniel :D

Elizabeth

Great tutorial! I did this in one room (doors and windows) and had to use a screw extractor for almost 50% of the screws since many were damaged or buried too deeply in paint. To remove extra tough paint in crevices after soaking the hardware, I found that a wooden chopstick was useful since it was pointy but soft enough not to scratch the metal. Even with all of the extra work, the beautiful result was worth it.

Erin S.

I wish I had old hardware to restore! It sounds so satisfying. Unfortunately all I have are those awful fake brass door handles with the curly ends. Also I’d just like to say that as someone who has been a fan of your blog for ages…you’re sounding more like a pro every day (I guess by now you almost are?) using terms like “mortise mechanism”. Fancy!

Anna @ D16

Just a quick note to the first Vanessa…

Heating the water to the point of boiling is fine if you’re 100% positive there’s no lead paint on your hardware, but otherwise you’re risking releasing toxic lead vapors into the air. The point of using lower heat (or a crockpot, my preferred method) over a longer period of time the way Daniel suggests is that the lead doesn’t get hot enough to vaporize.

Holly

Looks great! Unfortunately, while attempting to do the same to an ancient doorknob was unable to reattach it back to its functioning state. Just a word of warning!

Bree

So timely. Just bought a place with beautiful door hardware but all the backplates have been painted. I had heard rumor about doing something with a crockpot but I’m really a (not handy) step-by-step instructions person. Thanks!

Laura @ The Kitschen Cabinet

Love this post! I’ve used that technique for hardware on vintage dressers that have been painted over as well and it’s worked like a charm. For anyone who’s restoring something that’s been more recently painted, just a heads up that if the painter used a high adhesion primer, you may have to go with a chemical stripper like citristrip. When I’ve tried the boiling method with those primed pieces, it’s been a total failure.

Brittany

I did this at my old apartment, our landlord had slapped paint on all the hardware. What was most amazing to me was all the gross junk inside the knob and the lock part. There were: dead bugs, dimes, popcorn kernels, additional bugs, an old diary key, and even more bugs. It felt gross knowing that stuff had been in there the entire time, and I was so glad it was clean!

Justine

Wow, I can totally relate! I really thought, man am I the one that’s just being picky here, how did these people before me live like this!? My apt is very old, it has so much potential and everyday I find myself noticing things like that. Of course I brought to my landlords attention, but ya know they do what they can. Lil do they know I am making that place look more vibrant than its ever been. Bringing it back to life!

l o v e l y t h i n g s

You’re so funny…and spot on I might add. I wanted an old house…and an old house we bought in CT(without me actually seeing it before the purchase due to living in CA)…anyway I think I had the same tenants and prior owners as you mentioned. Just once, I would love to own the home that was cared lovingly by an older gentleman who loved to tinker and clean things and fix them (properly) along the way…but no.. we must equip each room with a screw driver so that no one is trapped should they be brave enough to close their door tightly. I am going to get to work on this tomorrow!!! I happen to have everything, except an old pot. Thank you!!

rebecca

now if only landlords/investors would stop DESTROYING old homes in place of McMansion duplexes! i can deal with paint on doorknobs if they don’t tear down the whole building to build some new piece of junk!

if anyone has ideas on how to save old homes, let me know!!!

jodie

Great idea with the dish detergent in the pot! I have been looking at my door handles wondering the best way to do them. So easy thankyou!

Rachel

Whoa – I really really love the way it looks all cleaned up!! It’s a shame someone painted it in the first place!

April

THANK YOU! We just bought and moved into a 92 year old diamond in the rough. A good portion of the hardware is original and most have been painted to some degree. I can’t wait to find an old Crockpot and get started.

Marije

Thanks, we just bought a beautiful 1890 house with sloppy paint work, so your advice is very handy! Daniel, do you have any experience with cleaning stained glass? Even the leadstrips in between it are covered with paint stains.

Laura

Happy to see that someone else does this and appreciates the patina of the old hardware, warts and all! If a piece is also rusty, I just use naval jelly to remove the rust and rub in a light coating of walnut oil to give it sheen. Very glad to see an alternative to paint stripper–didn’t know about this. Excellent!

Charlene

I love the vintage style. I actually rent and a couple if mt doors have these and I was thinking of swapping them out for some new hardware but this brings so much character. I love it. Thanks.

Annette

It’s even easier if you just put your painted hardware in a plastic takeout container, pour hot or warm water over it and let it sit until you feel like dealing with it — overnight or a few days, results were the same. Paint just peels right off and it’s free.

Sarah

My 1920′s apartment could be jaw-dropping. Unfortunately, the 70′s happened and I’m stuck with plastic tiles and painted everything. I love restoring old furniture to it’s former glory. What I wouldn’t give to do the same for this gorgeous old building!

Emily

I’m staring at two old paint covered door knobs right now. I know what I’m doing this weekend!

Emily

Also, I recently moved out of a house with beautiful glass doorknobs that had not been painted over. However, many of them were not attached to the door properly and it was common to pull the knob right off the door, leaving you trapped inside. While running out the door for work. We quickly learned tricks to untrap us (involving butter knives), and then employed screwdrivers to the knobs to better attach them. This doorknob problem was the least of our troubles in this house (with original boiler/radiator heating system). What is it with landlords?

Melissa Hernandez

I use an old Crock-Pot. The paint comes off by itself in big sections!

Heidi

You read my mind! I’m in the process of doing the same thing. Patience is a virtue with this type of project. Last weekend I restored all of the hardware on my bathroom door. The hinges were not kind…

Looks great!

Miss B.

This was such a satisfying post, I loved it! Thank you! I don’t need to know this in our current home, but I have filed it away for the future!

Alison

Holy cow, this is awesome! This was so inspiring, I cleaned up all my old doorknobs this weekend and there was about 1/8″ of paint on everything! Although, I wasn’t too neat on cutting out the paint so I wouldn’t have to repaint the doors, so it’s a little messy and repainting all my molding and woodwork isn’t really an option.

Emma B

Love this! I recently just did this in my pre war apartment and I’m amazed to have discovered that the hardware had so much detail and character. I can’t believe all this time, I was living with such beautiful hardware, and didn’t even know it for 6 years! Totally worth it. :)

Byaka

Came here when I found the before and after section. Bookmarked it and came back every week, whether a whole apartment or one piece of furniture. Loved it. Not loving this. It’s boring.

Elizabeth

This is awesome! Next up, how to open a window that’s been painted shut???

Mara

Any advice for an electric light fixture- there is one in our bedroom- that was sloppily painted lilac… I am sure there is a lovely patina itching to be uncovered, but I think water would not be a good idea for the electric components…
And thank you, as many of the others have noted this will provide me with hours of satisfying diy- 1918 house with so many crazy layers of paint… spent all fall painting, revealing the hardware will be a great finish.

Tone Flavin

How cool that paint can be removed so easily by soaking hardware in hot water. My brother told me about this 10 years ago when he restored our family’s antique building. He went about carefully and did not replace a single screw. The results were breathtaking and it serves the house well! Water is also a clean product, no chemicals.

Ryan

@MARIJE: the best way to remove paint from glass is a razor blade. to remove the paint from the leading, you’ll want to use fine steel wool, but protect the glass from the steel wool.

@MARA: You can remove paint from light fixtures the same way, just remove the sockets and wires first. If the wiring is in good condition you can use the same wires again after the paint is stripped, or just replace the wires. If it is a really old light be careful about replacing the sockets – especially if the bulb hangs down. They were made differently then and it’s better to use the original than a modern replacement.

Olena

I love the process of using hot water and ice to loosen-up the paint layer. No chemicals and heavy scratching… I still have antique door knobs on my closet doors, so I just clean them with a soft cloth and a small amount of ammonia. They still look great and do the job.

Deb

I think most of us can relate to your post WHY??? Why did previous tenants splash bright red paint up the wall and onto the ceiling and then paint over it with one coat of white paint… YES you can still see it and yes it is a problem.
What you have done is just beautiful and so lovely. I would stop and look at that beautiful door handle.

tory

I was so inspired by this post that I tackled some hardware over the weekend to great success, at least as far as removal from the doors and paint removal. However, one large, heavy, square lock/doorknob combo started rusting immediately, and the other (brass?) bolt locks seem to be as well. Should I have sprayed a coat of matte varnish right away on all the pieces? I was worried about spraying the bolt lock and the bolt not being able to slide, but now the rust is doing that anyway…

Dave

Great tip, will have to try this. One can also soak tarnished hardware in vinager for a while, and then brighten up its finish with 3/0 steel wool. It gives a better effect than Basso,…which will leave green in your detail areas.

Mike

Great tip. I will try that asap. My grandmother’s house is full of doorknobs just like this.

deb stefanini

this is great for flat surfaces. I’m dealing with old, textured kitchen handles that have been painted over with varnish and if that’s not bad enough, they did NOT prep before painting, so there’s ‘gook’ below the varnish. I want to brink it down to metal (looks like it’s brass over steel) and repaint in black.

Carolina Zhang

Love the tranformation! Who the *$*% paints over hardware!? It never fails to boggle my mind.

Josh

Great article! I like to use a touch of olive oil after as it seems to prolong the period between needing to do a new polish.

Dar

Does anyone know where I can buy replacement screws? My antique (early 1900′s)backplates and doorknobs look similar to what is pictured and I have some closet doors with smaller handles but many of the screws are missing. I have checked at Lowe’s and they do not carry the odd sizes needed. They said to look on line but I haven’t found any websites yet.

Paula A. Nielsen

What if removing the hardware is not an option and it’s small & intricate (e.g., like on a wooden jewelry box I stained with water based stain. I found that removing the hardware causes it to never tighten as it did originally. I need help with this ASAP!

Sue McGrory

Love this pin! I have been doing the same thing (only with a brass brush for tough spots) for many years. Palmolive works best of all dish soaps. If you’re not in a hurry, you can just put it and your hardware covered in water and let it sit for a few days. We are on our fifth house renovation (I really love historic houses), and this has seen me through every single one! And from thrift shop or restoration store purchases.

Old Home Learner

Fantastic. Worked like a charm. I am amazed. Very helpful!

Helen

I am rapidly falling in love with your blog and sense of humour! I live In the UK and recently moved into a council flat circa 1940s completely with original coal cupboard, and built in cupboards in the kitchen and bedroom which have a multitude of pendant handles coated in gloss. I have somehow convinced myself that it would be a good idea too strip the wardrobes (icky yellow/white colour) and find out what’s underneath but was pondering the finishing. I now have my answers! Thank you kindly wish me luck.

Gunnar

Great article, very useful information, and enjoyable comments! We live in a circa 1902 apartment, and all hardware in it was painted over, as was wooden wainscoting. Our back hall to the cellar was never painted, so we can see how woodwork looked in our place over 100 years ago. Our landlord did work in our building some years ago, removing period features left and right. Solid walls replaced paneled pocket doors, which allowed two smaller rooms to become one large room. Diamond paned windows in the dining rooms were replaced with a single pane windows, and fireplace mantles in every apartment were also removed.

I know this is off topic a bit, but since all of you seem to love old things “as they were” – why do so many people – including antiques dealers – also PAINT old furniture? Why for example, paint a perfectly handsome Victorian oak dining set? Came across a Craig’s List seller the other day – a dealer – who’s selling a bedroom set from the 1930′s, and who has posted before and after photos. What once was beautiful mahogany is now white, “chippy” she calls it. If a piece of furniture is in really bad, irreversible condition, then yes, paint it I suppose, and historically, furniture was sometimes painted, but – a lot of antique/old furniture is being painted needlessly, for a “look”. We are stewards of the past, are we not? How is slathering white paint over old furniture any less thoughtful than over old. beautiful hardware?

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